JESUS CHRIST – KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS - [2] The punishment of the great harlot [Revelation 17,18]

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

In Revelation 17:1 one of the seven angels who poured out the seven last plagues told John that he would show him ‘the punishment of the great prostitute who sits on many waters’. Verse 15 tells us that ‘the waters … where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages’. In other words, the ‘prostitute’ – ‘Babylon’ – is a global phenomenon.

 

A. THE REASON FOR THE PUNISHMENT

The inferred and stated reasons for the punishment of ‘Babylon’ are listed below. The first four over-lap each other, expressing the same godless egoism. The fifth results from and expresses these four.

[1] Blasphemy – the ‘beast’ that carries the ‘woman’ is covered with blasphemous names [17:3]. We have only to remember that Jesus’ contemporaries accused him of ‘blasphemy’ to understand what is meant by this charge – it is to claim for oneself what is God’s alone, it is to set oneself up in the place of God. This is what carries ‘the woman’, this is what bears her along on her godless intoxication of the nations. This is the mindset of Genesis 3: that human beings seek equality with God.

[2] Spiritual prostitution – by which she enticed the peoples and nations and the kings of the earth so successfully that they had no thought of God [17:2,18; 18:3,9,23b; 19:2]. Here is idolatry of the highest order – that humans exalt themselves as ‘god’ or above ‘god’ – depending on, trusting in themselves and their own ideas, abilities and resources. All lesser idolatries such as the worship of man-made gods are also included.

[3] Arrogance and self-glory – [18:7,16] the inevitable outcome of the above.

[4] Sin – [17:4b; 18:4,5] – all the abominations and the filth that results when the true God is discarded and humans are alone responsible for determining who or what ‘god’ is and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. See Genesis 6:5,11,12 to get a feel for this pervasive evil.

[5] Mistreatment of God’s people – whether their death or lesser abuse. This disrespect for God’s people is the inevitable outcome of the self-exalting godlessness of which ‘Babylon’ is a symbol. The punishment is directly related to this mistreatment [17:6; 18:6,7,20,24; 19:2b].

As we look at these reasons for the punishment of ‘Babylon’ in Revelation we find significant similarities to Jeremiah 50 and 51. Consider:

There are multiple references to the punishment being divine retribution or vengeance for the way Babylon mistreated God’s people [Jeremiah 50:11,15-16,28-29; 51:6,10-11,24,35-36,49,56]. Note particularly 51:49 which states that ‘the slain of all the earth have fallen because of Babylon’ – compare this with Revelation 18:24.

There is reference to Babylon’s opposition to God [50:24] her defiance of God [50:29], and her idolatry [50:2,28; 51:17f,47,52].

There is reference to her arrogance [50:31,32].

There is reference to her global impact – she made the whole earth drunk with the result that they had ‘gone mad’ [51:7 – compare Revelation 14:8; 18:3]; she had destroyed the whole earth [51:25; compare Revelation 11:18c]. Yet all that allegiance and energy that the nations gave to Babylon is ‘for nothing’ [51:58], such is the emptiness of her allurements and their intoxication with her.

 

B. THE URGENT PLEA

The punishment of human arrogance is unavoidable. It has been mounting up for generations. Indeed, it has been mounting up since that first act of human pride and arrogance in Genesis 3. Nothing that ‘Babylon’ has, nothing that human beings have achieved, can turn aside the punishment. In the words of Jeremiah 51:9 ‘her judgment reaches the skies, it rises as high as the clouds’. Neither human influence, nor human unity, nor human riches can avert the judgment [Jeremiah 51:13]. Human fame cannot avert the judgment [Jeremiah 51:41]. Those same kings of the earth that carried ‘Babylon’ [Revelation 17:3,9-12] and that she intoxicated with her allurements [18:3] cannot and will not avert the judgment, indeed it they bring her to ruin [17:16-17].

B.1 The human fall
An ‘angel’ with great authority and brilliant splendour [18:1] shouted with a mighty voice ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ Our first thought is that he is describing her punishment in advance – that this ‘fall’ from her position of prestige is the result of the judgment. And that is what is commonly understood by this verse. But that may not be the case: it may be that this ‘Fallen! Fallen!’ is the reason for the judgment, not the result of the judgment. [And it could be that it is both: that because humans ‘fell’ from the legitimate glory endowed on them at creation, the judgment of God falls upon them and pulls them down from their assumed and illegitimate glory in which they boast.] In any case, great and arrogant though she is ‘Babylon’ is characterized by fallenness.

In Genesis 1:26-28 God crowned humans with glory and honour, creating them in his own image and blessing them with dominion over the earth. Psalm 8:3-8 affirms this. When humans ‘fell’ in Genesis 3, they forsook the pure reflected glory that was theirs in their original right relationship with God, and sought to establish their own glory apart from God.

Genesis 3:5,6 describes how Satan tempted Eve with the statement ‘you will be like God’, and Eve saw the forbidden fruit as ‘good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom’. John summarizes this human desire as ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ [1John 2:16, 2011 NIV].  

On the surface humans appear to have achieved much. But all they have achieved has been achieved by the gifts God gave them. Although they do not realize it, all of their excellence, all of their achievement, derives from him. Yet they ever boast as if they had achieved it by themselves.

Suggested reading:
Psalm 49
Psalm 94:1-11
Isaiah 5:14-16
Daniel 11:36

We are not what God created us. We are ‘fallen’. The Bible uses various concepts to describe this fallenness – ‘dead’ [Ephesians 2:1,5], ‘blinded’ [2Corinthians 4:4], ‘lost’ [Luke 19:10], ‘sold as a slave to sin’ [Romans 7:14], in ‘the dominion of darkness’ [Colossians 1:13], ‘darkness’ [Ephesians 5:8], ‘children of disobedience’ [Ephesians 2:2, 5:6; Colossians 3:6], and affirms that we ‘followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air’ [Ephesians 2:2] and are ‘under the control of the evil one’ [1John 5:19].

The true greatness and glory with which we were endowed by God we lost in rejecting him. Yet because we were created for greatness and glory, we still strive for it – but apart from him. And as such there is always that element of weakness, of fallenness, in all human greatness. ‘Babylon the Great’, although appearing so strong, so rich, so influential, is greatly to be pitied.   

B.2 The human desolation
Revelation 18:2 paints a symbolic picture of utter desolation and despair. Behind the seeming power, wealth and beauty of human achievement is another reality: We who were created for a life-giving relationship with the holy God are, collectively, the ‘home of demons’, the ‘haunt for evil spirits’, and the ‘haunt for every unclean and detestable bird’.

B.2.1 The home of demons and haunt for evil spirits
Wherever idols are worshipped demons are present:

Leviticus 17:7 [see NIV footnote]
Deuteronomy 32:17
Psalm 106:37
1Corinthians 10:19-21
See also
Revelation 9:20; 16:13,14.

And these references where false teaching of any kind is attributed to demonic spirits:
1Timothy 4:1ff
1John 4:1-3

So successful is Satan’s deception that we do not even realize how we have been, and are being, so deceived and so manipulated. We do not realize, we cannot realize how different we and our lives are from what we were created to be. Our blindness, our darkness, our enslavement to Satan, is complete.

Suggested reading:
Matthew 6:23
Ephesians 4:17-19

The demons and evil spirits confronted by Jesus were well aware that their ‘home’ is temporary, that a day is coming when they will be destroyed forever [Matthew 8:29; Mark 1:24, 5:7]. Rather than ‘Babylon’ being a home for them after her destruction, it is that final destruction, which includes their own destruction, that they fear.

B.2.2 ‘a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird’
This symbol of unclean and detestable birds is used in two separate ways in the Bible.

[1] It is used to depict the utter aloneness and despair of man without God. Although it was not true that God had deserted Job or that Job had deserted God, such was his feeling of aloneness and desolation that he felt that God was not there. In the despair of that deep feeling of desertion he said: ‘I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls … my harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing’ [Job 30:29,31]. Owls bring up thoughts of night, of darkness, of solitariness, of mournful cries. Such is the darkness and despair of ‘Babylon’ – humans without God, humans who despite their greatness and their achievements are plagued with an inner lostness and alienation.

[2] The presence of the unclean and detestable birds depicts the certainty of judgment. Even though the human ego neither expects nor admits it, the human race is under judgment. Just as vultures hover in the sky above a weak or dying animal, so in this symbolic ‘Babylon’ the symbolic vultures gather, waiting for the inevitable and final collapse, the inevitable and final judgment.

Suggested reading:
Isaiah 13:21,22
Isaiah 34:13-15
Jeremiah 50:39
Revelation 19:17,21.

B.3 The reason for this desolation
Verse 3 contains facts about ‘Babylon’ that we looked at in the previous study: the global seduction of the nations, the kings and the merchants: all have fallen to the allurements of ‘Babylon’ – the nations ‘have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries’, the kings of the earth ‘committed adultery with her’ and the merchants of the earth ‘grew rich from her excessive luxuries’. Carried along by Satan humans have been completely intoxicated with their own importance and achievements. The glory which should have been God’s they tried to take for themselves. Although all of this seems impressive it is the cause of the world’s lostness and desolation: we were created to image God and for relationship with God, instead we have chosen absorption with ourselves. Turned in upon ourselves and our own glory we have forfeited our true glory. Just as this is the cause of ‘Babylon’s’ desolation and it is also the cause of its inevitable judgment. [See previous study and Section A above.]

B.4 The urgent appeal
Into this despairing and desperate situation of fallen humanity bloated with pride and ripe for judgment comes the urgent command of verse 4: ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues’. Just as surely as ‘sins’ characterize ‘Babylon’ so also does God’s judgment upon her – ‘her plagues’. Even here in this vision of God’s judgment on the sinful world, his grace and his gospel are urgently expressed: there is a way to escape from the sins of the world and their just judgment. There is a way to escape from his wrath: it is to heed the command of God to ‘come out’ of the world and unto himself, to disassociate oneself from ‘Babylon’ and associate oneself with God.

This call to separation from the mindset and values of ‘the world’ permeates the Scripture.

Suggested reading:
Exodus 34:16
Leviticus 18:24-30
Deuteronomy 4:1-31
Deuteronomy 8

To his people of old came this same urgent command in the context of judgment:

‘Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once. … Move back from the tents of these wicked men! Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins’ [Numbers 16:20,26].

‘Depart, depart, go out from there!
Touch no unclean thing!
Come out from it and be pure …’ [Isaiah 52:11]

‘Flee from Babylon!
Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins.
It is the time of the Lord’s vengeance; he will pay her what she deserves’ [Jeremiah 51:6].

‘Come out of her, my people!
Run for your lives!
Run from the fierce anger of the LORD’ [Jeremiah 51:45].

Just as the ancient city of Babylon was about to be destroyed so the wrath of God is hanging over the ‘Babylon’ of Revelation – over the whole world in its godless arrogance and wickedness [Romans 1:18-32]. The only way to escape the ‘plagues’ of Babylon, those seven last plagues that were poured out upon the inhabitants of the earth in Revelation 16, is to flee from ‘Babylon’ to God, to return to the Lord. For those who do so that otherwise unavoidable judgment is avoided:

‘I have swept away your offences like a cloud,
your sins like the morning mist.
Return to me, for I have redeemed you’ [Isaiah 44:22].

‘Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon’ [Isaiah 55:7].

‘Return, faithless Israel …
I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful … I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt – you have rebelled against the LORD your God,
you have scattered your favours to foreign gods under every spreading tree’ [Jeremiah 3:12,12].

‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’ [Ezekiel 18:23].

‘Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you and return to the LORD.
Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously
that we may offer the fruit of our lips”’ [Hosea 14:1,2].

Even here in Revelation 18 God is holding out the opportunity of life in this vision of the immanent judgment that is to fall upon the world. Although it is written for the church there are those in the church who need to hear this ‘Come out of her, my people …’ We saw this need in the seven letters to the churches, and we see it here again. Wherever the church is indistinguishable from the world, wherever the church, individually or corporately, has the mindset of ‘Babylon’, which some in the seven churches did, there the urgent Gospel needs to be heard. There people need to hear again the imperative words of the Gospel, commanding them to repent, to come to Jesus, to follow Jesus, to believe in Jesus, not in themselves. Only by such a repenting, such a coming, such a following, such a believing can they escape the wrath that is to come.

We have seen this wrath repeatedly as we have worked through Revelation. Note particularly what was said in Section C.2 in the study on Revelation 11:16-18, and section C.3 in the study on Chapter 16 – the Sixth Seal.

B.5 Further affirmation of the urgency to repent
Verse 5 explains the need for the urgent appeal: ‘Babylon’s’ sins ‘are piled up to heaven’. The sins of the world do not fade and perish and disappear with the passing of time. They are piled up to heaven. This parallels Jeremiah 51:9 which states that ‘her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds’. From the very first sin to the last they are all there – God remembers them all – ‘and God has remembered all her crimes’. They are piled up, sin upon sin, evil upon evil, and with them their judgment is also piled up. We saw this when we looked at Revelation 15:7 – the eternal God does not forget, nor is he ignorant. Here Psalm 130:2 comes to mind:

‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O LORD, who could stand?’

For the redeemed, for all who ‘come out of Babylon’ and return to the Lord, the rest of this verse is true:

‘But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.’

And for those who still align with ‘Babylon’ is the urgent plea:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption’ [Psalm 130:7].


C. THE PUNISHMENT – 18:6-24

The sins of the world – ‘Babylon’ - are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered all her crimes. We have seen something of these crimes in Chapter 17 and in 18:2,3. Indeed, we have seen them in every one of the parallel sections of Revelation already studied. Now the punishment which was revealed in Chapter 16 is further described in 18:6-24.

C.1 Punishment appropriate to the crimes – 18:6,7
There is difference of opinion about what the concept of ‘double’ means in verse 6 – ‘pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup’. Some believe it means exactly that – ‘double’. Others believe that it means something like ‘the equivalent’ – so that both sides of the scales are evenly balanced. When consideration is given not only to punish for the crime but to recompense the victim the natural meaning of ‘double’ seems quite reasonable, for in some circumstances the suffering and loss experienced by the victim is such that can never be fully compensated. Note that in Exodus a double recompense was required for certain crimes [Exodus 22:4,7,9].

The justice of God’s wrath is clearly seen in the phrases: ‘give her back as she has given’, ‘give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself’.

C.2 The unexpectedness of the punishment
From her perspective ‘Babylon’ is not expecting punishment. Just as our atheistic and disbelieving world has no anticipation of any final ‘judgment’ so the symbolic ‘Babylon’ considers herself above and immune from any such eventuality. In her heart she believes that she is in charge ‘I sit as queen’ – there is no one above her who has the authority to bring her down. In her heart she says ‘I am not a widow’ – she is utterly secure in the allegiance of all the lovers, the kings of the earth, whom she has seduced and intoxicated. In her heart she says ‘I will never mourn’ – so secure and self-confident she feels. Such arrogance and false security are typical of the unbelieving world. [We have already seen in section B.6 of the previous study that evil turns against itself – the very things in which she trusted repeatedly bring her down.]

Suggested reading:
Psalm 10:2-11,13
Psalm 14:1
Isaiah 47:8-11
Ezekiel 28:2
Zephaniah 2:15].

C.3 The punishment described
Verse 8 gives a description of the punishment.

[1] It is rapid – ‘in one day’. When we read further we discover that not only did it happen ‘in one day’ – it also only took ‘one hour’ [verses 10,17,19].

[2] It consists of the ‘plagues’ already described in Chapter 16, see especially 16:19, but inclusive of all seven concurrent plagues.

[3] It is symbolically represented by ‘death, mourning, famine’ – total loss of everything.

[4] She will be ‘consumed by fire’ – that is, by the judgment of God. This fire of God’s judgment is also symbolised in the ‘smoke of her burning’ that is observed by the kings and sea captains who consorted with her [verse 9,18], and by a great multitude in heaven praising God for the justice of her punishment [19:3].

[5] It is permanent and irreversible: the great multitude in heaven states that ‘the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.’

In addition, in 18:21-24, the permanence of the punishment/destruction is depicted in graphic symbolism: a mighty angel heaved a huge boulder into the sea and likened the destruction of ‘Babylon’ to his action, adding that ‘never again’ would human life in all its varied activities by found in her. These verses parallel Jeremiah 51:63,64, where Jeremiah is instructed to tie a stone to a written copy of his prophecy against Babylon and throw it into the Euphrates River saying ‘So will Babylon sink to rise no more because of the disaster I will bring upon her …’

[6] It is just. Three statements close out the description of the punishment to validate its justice.

Your merchants were the world’s great men … The deception perpetrated by Satan entrapped ‘the world’s great men’ – not just the uneducated, not just the poor, not just the unskilled. But the greatest – intelligent, educated, astute, powerful. In Jeremiah 5, the prophet was instructed to find one upright person – that if he could fine one the Lord would forgive the city. He could not find one among the poor, so he looked among the leaders, expecting to find more than one there who knew the way of the Lord. But ‘with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds’ [verse 5]. The ‘world’s great men’ were just as deceived, just as intoxicated by the lusts of their own importance as the rest. Not even they had the wisdom to recognize the wrongness of their allegiance.

By your magic spell all the nations were led astray … The whole world was mesmerised, under the hypnotic power of the illusion of power and importance. Just as an ‘illusionist’ has willing volunteers, so the whole human race willingly participated in this ultimate illusion of human greatness independent of God.

In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints and of all who have been killed on the earth … Here the justice needs no explanation. Note, however, that ‘Babylon’ is held responsible for the blood of all God’s people.

C.4 The human observers of the punishment
In the vision there are human observers of the punishment of ‘Babylon’ – the kings, the merchants and the sea captains etc whom she had made drunk and whom she had made rich. In the actual final reality there will be no earthly observers, for the ‘end of the world’ will come upon all the enemies of God and of the Lamb simultaneously. And in this is the deep pathos and the deep irony of this vision: that these symbolic observers have no awareness that this punishment that falls upon ‘Babylon’ also is also falling upon them, for they are part of ‘Babylon’ and cannot be distinguished from her. But also in this vision we see the total self-centredness of those who follow the ‘beast’ and consort with ‘the prostitute’. About these symbolic observers we learn:

[1] they weep and mourn [verses 9,11,17,19].
[2] they are terrified at her torment [10,15] [Are they perhaps fearful a similar fate awaits them?]
[3] they stand far off doing nothing to save her or salvage anything from her [10,15,17].
[4] their grief is self-focused [11] regretting the loss of trade and wealth they now face.

All that these observers depended on and took their significance from has come to an end. Such is the nature of ‘Babylon’.

In the vision, with its focus on the punishment of ‘Babylon’, there is opportunity for these kings and merchants and seamen to repent. But such an action does not enter their heads. Indeed, in reality, the world has seen ‘Babylon’ rise and fall again and again, but does not see the folly of her allurements. Again and again until the end humans will be seduced by her promises of greatness and power. Such is our arrogance. Such is the destructive deception of the evil one.